NFL Stat Oddity: Super Bowl LVI

I certainly did not come into the 2021 NFL season expecting a Super Bowl between the Bengals and Rams. I had a Buccaneers-Chiefs rematch with the same outcome in the hopes that my uncanny ability to pick a Super Bowl team, but the wrong Super Bowl outcome would strike again. Either the Chiefs would win, or the Buccaneers would lose.

But the Bengals and Rams knocked those teams out on their way to this matchup, the first in Super Bowl history between No. 4 seeds. I still was able to live up to my half-right, ultimately-wrong Super Bowl outcome history by predicting the exact final score (23-20), but for the wrong winner. Got the spread right at least (Bengals +4), which concludes my most accurate season of predictions yet.

Super Bowl LVI will not go down as an all-time great Super Bowl, but it was a close, competitive game all the way through, and you can’t really argue with a game where so many of the best players on paper were the best players on the field. The Rams won largely on the strengths of their team (passing offense, pass rush) and the Bengals lost largely on their weaknesses (bad offensive line and red zone mediocrity). In other words, this game actually was decided by logical outcomes that can be easily explained, so that alone makes it a pretty fvcking good Super Bowl.

The officiating was a wash. There was a nice game-winning touchdown drive. The two best players in the game put the Rams over the top in the final 90 seconds to get this win. There were some interesting strategy decisions to question. The halftime show was good. Larry David had a pretty, pretty good commercial to make up for all the garbage we saw. Another championship was won in spite of the running game.

All in all, it was a good experience, and I want to share some final thoughts on the game and this 2021 season before finally pushing the start button on this offseason.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Sacks vs. Interceptions: 7-2 Wins for the Rams

If you read some of my Super Bowl previews, you know I was touting this as a matchup of sacks (Joe Burrow) vs. interceptions (Matthew Stafford), and the defense that would get the most splash plays should lead their team to a low-scoring win. I also said Cooper Kupp was inevitable and the best value bet for MVP, but I blew my parlay on that one because of one Nikola Jokic assist on Saturday. Bummer.

But the low scoring, defensive slugfest proved to be accurate. The Rams sacked Burrow seven times with six of those coming in bunches in the second half alone. Stafford was intercepted twice while the Bengals had no official turnovers, putting the Rams on a short list of just three teams that won the Super Bowl with a turnover differential of minus-2 or worse. The 1970 Colts (-3) beat the Cowboys and the 1979 Steelers (-2) beat the Rams.

Teams are now 30-3 in the Super Bowl when they are +2 or better in turnovers. But it makes perfect sense why the Rams were able to overcome this margin.

For starters, the Rams mitigated the impact of Stafford’s two picks. He did not have the big pick-six that he did four times in the regular season to hurt his team. He threw up a shot to the end zone on a third-and-14 at the Cincinnati 43 late in the second quarter. Could he have tried something safer to set up a field goal? Perhaps. Matt Gay is not exactly Justin Tucker when it comes to kickers. But I don’t hate him trying that shot with a 13-10 lead. It was one of the few times the Bengals tried their three-man rush they had success in Kansas City with, but it was feast or famine this time as Stafford had a couple touchdowns against it before the pick.

The Bengals also botched the moment with a taunting penalty after Vernon Hargreaves, a mega bust in this league, solidified his bust legacy by coming off the bench in street clothes to celebrate.

Instead of starting at the 20, the Bengals were at their own 10 and ended up punting after Leonard Floyd finally got to Burrow for the first sack of the night on a third down. The vaunted pass rush for the Rams was not doing anything worthwhile against this Cincinnati offensive line prior to that series.

When Stafford started the third quarter with an interception on a tipped ball, that’s when the game could have really fell apart for the Rams. They just allowed a 75-yard touchdown and the Bengals were leading 17-13. Stafford was a little off on the throw, but Ben Skowronek is the receiver who tipped it to turn it into an interception and give the Bengals the ball at the Los Angeles 31.

If the Rams allow a touchdown there and fall behind 24-13, this could go much differently. But again, this is when Aaron Donald and the pass rush came to life and saved the day. Donald pushed Burrow out of bounds on a scramble that went down as a sack. That seemed to fire him up and he finished the drive with a monster sack on third-and-3 at the LA 11. The Bengals had to settle for a 38-yard field goal and 20-13 lead.

Cincinnati never scored again and never got deeper than the Los Angeles 49 on the final five drives.

That Donald sack was massive to keep it a one-score game, and the Rams continued to take Burrow down from there with five more sacks. The Bengals tried to join the 2001 Jaguars and 2018 Texans as the only teams in NFL history to win multiple games when allowing seven sacks, and these would be two playoff games for the Bengals. But it was not to be this time.

While the Rams did not register an official takeaway, that ignores the way the Bengals started and ended this game with a failed pass play on fourth-and-1 at midfield. That basically evens up the turnover count at two a piece, and when you consider the plus-five advantage the Rams had in sacks, it makes sense why they ultimately won the game.

In both cases, the Bengals inexplicably tried to run backup running back Samaje Perine at Aaron Donald on third-and-1. I get why Perine was in there for the final drive as a receiving back, but is he really that much better at it than Joe Mixon? But if you’re going to run on third-and-1 early in the game, why not use Mixon? Why not go away from where Donald is? Both times it put the Bengals in a bind on fourth-and-1. The first time, Burrow did not see a wide open Tee Higgins, and his throw was deflected away and never had a chance. Just a bad play. On the last drive, the Bengals needed a quick hitter, but it was Donald coming dead-to-rights for that eighth sack, only to see Burrow still get the ball away. But the pass fell harmlessly incomplete with 39 seconds left, and the Rams were champions.

In the end, it was not a sack that ended the Bengals’ season, but it might as well have been with the way Donald got to Burrow on that play. But some better run choices or pass designs on third-and-1 could have helped the Bengals avoid those two fourth downs, which were really just two turnovers, stat sheet be damned.

Throwing two picks likely cost Stafford the glory of a Super Bowl MVP award, but they were done in a way that did not cost his team a championship. But it also helps that for the third playoff game in a row, he delivered the signature game-winning drive of his career.

Stafford and the Career Moment of a Signature Game-Winning Drive

The Rams are the first team in NFL history to win three straight playoff games by three points. If they didn’t, then the Bengals very well may have earned that distinction in overtime. That’s just how these teams were this postseason. All three Los Angeles wins required a game-winning drive with the winning points scored after the two-minute warning, but this was the first time it was a touchdown for Stafford and the Rams.

This feat is going to put the 2021 Rams in the conversation of the “luckiest” Super Bowl winners of all time, but I am not convinced they would rank that high on the list. What were their breaking points during this playoff run? They didn’t have a Red-Right 88 or Tuck Rule or Nick Harper getting tackled by Ben Roethlisberger or Rahim Moore-Jacoby Jones or Scott Norwood miss or Malcolm Butler interception at the 1 moment along the way.

Hell, the Rams aren’t luckier than the 2016 Patriots, who needed every break imaginable to come back from 28-3 against Atlanta. For that matter, these Rams almost repeated that failure with a blown 27-3 lead in Tampa Bay, but hopefully they have ended Tom Brady for good in the NFL. Stafford and Kupp beating Todd Bowles’ Cover-0 call on a great throw and catch was about talent beating stubbornness more than just random luck.

Speaking of luck, this whole postseason may have changed on the 49ers blocking a punt for a touchdown in Green Bay in the divisional round. Yes, the Green Bay special teams were historically awful, but that’s still a pretty fluky touchdown to score, no less a game-winning one. Without that, the Packers likely host these Rams, and that matchup has not been kind to McVay’s Rams, nor has Lambeau been good for Stafford’s career. Instead, the Rams got another crack at Jimmy Garoppolo and a 10-7 team that was the last to sneak into the NFC tournament on the strength of an overtime win in Los Angeles.

The 2021 Rams are the only Super Bowl winner to play teams with fewer than 11 wins in both the conference championship game and Super Bowl (minimum 16-game season).

Against the 49ers, Stafford did have an interception dropped in the fourth quarter while trailing 17-14 on what turned into a game-tying field goal. It wouldn’t have been the end of the season, but it could have been important. That was one of the scariest moments for the Rams this postseason, but they overcame every gut punch to win three straight nail-biters.

This Super Bowl was definitely a grind with Stafford receiving no help from the ground game. The Rams liked to run on first down, but it was not effective on any down. The three backs combined for 19 carries for 30 yards. Throw in a major knee injury to Odell Beckham Jr. in the second quarter after he looked poised for a huge game (52 yards and a touchdown), and Stafford must have felt like he was back in Detroit. Shaky line, no running game, one great receiver, and trying to win with randoms like Skowronek and tight end Brycen Hopkins, who I never even heard of before Sunday night. Hopkins had to play with Tyler Higbee inactive, so Stafford was down Beckham and Higbee for most of the game.

When Skowronek tipped that ball for an interception, it would have been easy for Stafford to start panicking and forcing things. But one of the sneakiest big plays of the game came on a third-and-8 following the pick and Cincinnati field goal that made it 20-13. The Rams were about to go three-and-out, but Stafford threw a great pass downfield to running back Darrell Henderson, which was something the Rams tried a few times in the game with their backs. He caught it for 15 yards, and the drive continued for a field goal. That could have been another game-changing moment if the Rams went three-and-out and put the Bengals in good field position.

But speaking of field position, you know this game was a defensive battle when these teams had six drives that started at their own 40 or better and only got one touchdown out of those drives. Four ended in no points.

One thing the Rams kept going to in this game was a quick snap in the hurry-up offense. It did not work well. In fact, Stafford rushed the first interception when he could have took it down to the two-minute warning and had a better play ready. It reminded me of the 2006 Colts trying to quick snap the Ravens in the divisional round. Peyton Manning said he saw Brady and the Patriots do this to the Jets the week before, and he wanted to try it. It did not work well either, but the Ravens lost that game because they scored six points.

The Rams looked lost on offense after the Beckham injury, which was tough to see after how well he’s been playing to get to this point. Stafford started losing his patience and throwing deep balls without success. Kupp was being covered better than usual. The Bengals really seemed to be in control, but the Cincinnati offense never added on to the lead.

If you give Stafford six chances at a clutch touchdown drive, he’s going to deliver at least once. When the Rams had to settle for a third-quarter field goal, that was because their little trick play, akin to the Philly Special, with Kupp throwing a pass to Stafford failed on a third-and-5. Even if the throw was good, it was setting Stafford up for a big hit at the sticks. Just a bad call that tried to match Cincinnati’s trick play earlier where Joe Mixon threw an impressive touchdown to Higgins.

Fortunately for Stafford, with 6:13 left, McVay finally put the game in his hands. Enough with the runs that kept stalling drives. The Rams were either going to win or lose on the quarterback they brought in and the few healthy receivers he had left. Fortunately, Kupp was still one of those healthy guys and he took the drive over to clinch his MVP award.

The whole thing could have gone south after four plays with the Rams facing a fourth-and-1 at their own 30. McVay went for it, and I was really concerned about a Stafford sneak because he’s looked terrible doing it this postseason. The line wasn’t getting any push either. But it was a good call to give the ball to Kupp in motion, who weaved his way for 7 yards. The Rams did not have a run longer than 8 yards on the night, but none were bigger than that play.

While I never heard of Hopkins before the night, he looked good, catching all four of his targets for 47 yards. He had two grabs for 15 yards on the game-winning drive, including the first 9 yards and a key third down conversion along the way. But Kupp took over with 46 yards on the drive.

One of the biggest plays of the game was a target to Kupp that was not complete. After the two-minute warning, the Rams were 8 yards away from the end zone, but it was already third down. Stafford threw incomplete for Kupp, which would have set up a big fourth-and-goal at the 8, but a flag was thrown for defensive holding. It felt like a make-up call to me for the offensive pass interference the referees didn’t call on Higgins’ 75-yard touchdown in the third quarter. If Skowronek or Hopkins is the target of this pass, I doubt it gets called. But with Kupp? I think it was a mixture of superstar treatment and a make-up call to give the Rams a first down. But again, the Bengals got a touchdown earlier they shouldn’t have had too, so I think the officiating, which was overall fine, was a wash in the end.

Kupp had a great catch for a touchdown negated by off-setting penalties. Eli Apple was called for DPI on a more obvious call that put the ball at the 1. You can certainly make an argument for letting them score to conserve time, even if it was a 20-16 game. A four-play stand at the 1 is tough. Stafford’s sneak failed, though that felt like it was on purpose to burn a Cincinnati timeout. Stafford threw for Kupp against Apple, and you know what happened there.

That was a 15-play, 79-yard drive. It is the 16th game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter or overtime of a Super Bowl. I think an argument could be made for this ranking in the top five for game-winning Super Bowl drives, but still behind Eli Manning’s 2007 march against the 18-0 Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes against Arizona, and Joe Montana against the 1988 Bengals. Maybe the other Eli drive (Mario Manningham catch) gets in there even though the touchdown was weak with Ahmad Bradshaw haphazardly breaking the plane. Maybe Nick Foles’ drive against the 2017 Patriots was better, though I don’t really remember anything outside of the Zach Ertz touchdown. This is somewhere around the top five for a Super Bowl.

Certainly, the biggest drive of Stafford’s career, which is crazy since I wrote the same thing about his game-winning drive in Tampa Bay, then again with the comeback over the 49ers, and now for sure the definitive 4QC/GWD of his career in the Super Bowl. What a three-week run.

With the win, Stafford now has 35 fourth-quarter comeback wins, which moves him into sixth all time with only select company ahead of him.

Suddenly, the quarterback who was 8-68 against teams with a winning record coming into 2021 almost doubled that total with seven such wins this season.

I still do not believe Stafford is a lock for the Hall of Fame, but his chances just shot up considerably. He likely has a better chance now than Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers. He is 5 yards away from 50,000, is one of six quarterbacks with multiple 40-touchdown pass seasons, has the high number of 4QC/GWD, and he’s always been a prolific volume passer. He’s just rarely ever been that efficient or considered a top 10 quarterback in his career. But if this Super Bowl run sparks an excellent finish for him in Los Angeles with another deep playoff run (or more), then I think he’ll be a lock soon as he passes 60,000 yards and 400 touchdown passes.

Defense did a lot of the heavy lifting for Stafford this postseason, but he also had to carry the offense without much help at all from the running game. I always blew off that criticism about a lack of 100-yard rushers in Detroit. As if it would matter if his backs combined for 90 or 110 yards in any given game. He needed more help from his defense, especially against good teams, and that was something he got this year.

Can he do it in more than one year to show that this isn’t the one-off special where everything just fell into place for the Rams? We’ll see but hats off to Stafford for reshaping his narrative this season in a way few quarterbacks ever have. In his 13th season, Stafford joins John Elway (15th) as the only quarterbacks to win their first Super Bowl more than a dozen years into their career.

Cooper Kupp: Best Wide Receiver Season Ever?

Had Stafford threw his game-winning touchdown to someone like Hopkins, perhaps the quarterback would have been named Super Bowl MVP. But Kupp catching it to cap off his night with 99 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns solidified his MVP award.

Now the question is was it the best wide receiver season in NFL history?

When you include the postseason, Kupp absolutely has an argument. No receiver has ever had a season this prolific end with a championship.

By playing 21 games, he has an unfair advantage in compiling totals, but he still caught 22 more passes than anyone (178 total), and he shattered 2008 Larry Fitzgerald’s yardage record by 448 yards in only one extra game. Kupp (2,425 yards) has the only 2,000-yard receiving season in NFL history when you include the playoffs, and his 22 touchdown catches are tied with two Jerry Rice seasons (13 games in 1987 and 19 games in 1989) for the second most in history. Randy Moss had 24 touchdown catches in 19 games in 2007, but those two touchdowns aren’t worth more than the near 900-yard difference between the two. Moss had just two catches for 32 yards in the first two playoff games that year before catching a touchdown in the Super Bowl after Corey Webster fell.

Kupp also got a rare MVP vote for a wide receiver in the regular season and became the fourth player since the merger to win the receiving triple crown. Kupp caught at least five passes for 60 yards in all 21 games this season; the second-longest streak in NFL history. He had at least 90 yards in 19 of 21 games, another new standard established. Only 2008 Fitzgerald (seven) had more touchdown catches in a postseason than Kupp’s six this year.

When you add a game-winning touchdown catch and Super Bowl MVP to this remarkable, historic production and consistency, I think you can conclude that Kupp just had the best receiving season in NFL history.

Fvck that 1951 Elroy Hirsch noise. My guy wasn’t stat padding on a Friday afternoon against the New York Yanks.

Joe Burrow: Not the LOAT

Pregame tweet:

Admit it. For a brief moment in the second and third quarters, you saw a glimmer of Joe Burrow becoming the new LOAT (Luckiest of All Time) in the first game after Tom Brady retired.

But then the avalanche of sacks came, Burrow actually had to score more than 13 points of offense to beat the Rams in the Super Bowl, and he couldn’t even get into field goal range on the final drive to force overtime. That’s not very Brady-like.

You’re probably never going to be the LOAT, Joe.

But there was a Brady-esque script for Burrow to follow in this one. He didn’t start the game well, just like Brady in every first quarter in every New England Super Bowl. Then Ja’Marr Chase beat Jalen Ramsey with a 46-yard gain on a one-handed catch. Joe Mixon helped fix the Bengals’ red zone mediocrity by throwing a nice touchdown to Higgins. Beckham injured his knee on a fluky no-contact play, and that seemed to destroy Stafford’s confidence. Burrow willed his defense to two picks, including a tipped ball, and just like that he was at the Los Angeles 31 with a 17-13 lead, which only came after Higgins got away with a facemask on Ramsey for a 75-yard touchdown that shouldn’t have counted. It was the longest catch Ramsey’s allowed in his career and Burrow had little to do with it happening.

THIS WAS BRADY BULLSHIT ALL OVER AGAIN.

Twenty years later and lazy Hollywood was giving us a god damn repeat. But Aaron Donald took things into his own hands and sacked Burrow on that third down to bring up a field goal and keep the game at 20-13.

From there, Burrow couldn’t do a thing with five sacks to come. Tyler Boyd let him down with a bad drop on third down at midfield prior to the Rams’ game-winning drive.

But Burrow had his Montana/Brady moment aligned for him. He got the ball back with 1:25 and two timeouts, only needing a field goal for overtime. That’s plenty of time to get a touchdown even. Brady had 1:21 left against the 2001 Rams in a tied game. But with a 2-9 record in 4QC opportunities, these are not the moments where we’ve seen Burrow shine so far in his career. Sacks and interceptions in fact feel more likely than touchdowns.

He got the drive off to a good start with two completions for 26 yards, but a deep ball on second-and-1 was questionable. Another Perine run on third down was ridiculous, stopped by Donald and company for no gain and costing the Bengals a timeout. With fourth-and-1 at the Los Angeles 49, the Bengals decided to throw much like the opening drive of the game where Burrow was off target. This time he was lucky to even get rid of the ball without Donald taking him out for a game-ending sack.

Burrow finished with a 39.7 QBR as seven sacks will kill you in that stat. Burrow only showed off his scrambling ability, which QBR loves, once in the game. A lot of times, he had no lane to take off.

I think Burrow’s Super Bowl performance will go down as one of the toughest games to analyze for a quarterback. For someone who dropped back over 40 times, it just never felt like he was an integral part of the game, for better or worse.

His two huge completions against Ramsey for 121 yards were basically all about what the receiver did on those plays. While the line held up early, the seven sacks show how outmatched they were against that front as Burrow had little time to throw. The Boyd drop was awful by Boyd. The Mixon TD pass was awesome by Mixon. Burrow was kind of just “being there” while the game unfolded around him all night. There’s very little that I would credit him for, positive or negative, in this game.

That’s why he better hopes he gets back to another of these, or his legacy is going to be difficult to say the least. I do not think this performance will age well. Youth is on the side of Burrow and this offense, and the offensive line will almost surely be upgraded in the offseason. But we have to stop doing that thing where we pencil in someone for future Super Bowl performances.

Only one LOAT existed in this era. Youth didn’t bring Dan Marino back to the Super Bowl after losing in his second season. Russell Wilson hasn’t been back after his third season. The last 11 seasons for Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh (2011-21), Drew Brees in New Orleans (2010-20), and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay (2011-21) have produced zero Super Bowl appearances.

Every opportunity is precious and must be seized, because you never know if there will be another one.

Burrow will not be joining Brady as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to win four straight playoff games by fewer than eight points. Believe it or not, Stafford has a chance to do that the next time he starts a playoff game.

But even that future is uncertain.

Conclusion: Can the Rams Repeat?

I’ll make my first 2022 NFL prediction: I won’t be predicting a Rams-Bengals rematch in the Super Bowl.

Bold, I know. But the Bengals have that tough AFC to deal with, and frankly I don’t see anything Burrow did this year that Justin Herbert couldn’t do with the Chargers if they spend a little to upgrade the defense. Not to mention the Chiefs and Josh Allen in Buffalo, who people will be dying to see in a playoff rematch after that classic this year.

The Rams should have an easier shot of repeating in the NFC, but that’s all down the road to talk about. We have to see where Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and maybe Kyler Murray end up, and if Brady is really retired or not.

But I will say this felt like the culmination of a tough five-year journey for McVay and the Rams. They went all in and it paid off with a championship at the end. It’s not ending quite like the 2011-15 Broncos when Peyton Manning retired, but the Rams may not be at the top of their powers in 2022 like the Packers were in 1997 coming off their win. Imagine if Reggie White retired after that 1996 win.

While McVay said he’s not retiring, what if Donald does? That would be a huge loss for the defense as he’s clearly the best in the game and had an argument for Super Bowl MVP, about the only award he hasn’t won in his career. Andrew Whitworth should retire at left tackle, and obviously the line needs some work. That might be a serious knee injury for Beckham, and Robert Woods is coming off his own torn ACL. Stafford to Kupp will continue to be awesome, but that connection alone doesn’t win a ring.

But these Rams did prove that if you’re a winning team that keeps coming up short, you can get aggressive and add those final missing pieces with proven players instead of relying on the draft picks to be gold. This team was not built like Washington’s Dan Snyder throwing money at over-the-hill players. The Rams made some smart moves to help improve a team that had a winning record the last four years. I have a hard time finding fault with their strategy, especially when their two biggest studs, Donald and Kupp, carried the team late in the game to a win. Those were homegrown talents, and they finally had the help around them to pull this off.

People could have dismissed Tampa Bay winning last year as Brady being Brady. But when Stafford can leave Detroit after 12 years and instantly win a Super Bowl, nearly doubling his career wins against winning teams in one season? That’s a potential game changer in this league if you ask me. We’ll see if other teams follow suit.

To end on a personal note, I hope to accomplish some things this offseason that I did not do or do as well as I wanted to last year. I want to take a serious look at starting a Patreon (or something similar) where I can share stats/databases, write articles, and hopefully get into video work as I have many ideas there. Just need to get comfortable with editing and narrating. I want to add even more columns to my master game database, which is already around 290 columns. I want to study player prop bets deeper and get better at those. I want to get my diet back on track with more exercise after slacking off too much the last seven months. I am going to continue doing NBA picks for Bookmakers Review through the end of the season.

While I’ll be begging for some real football in the summer, these last few years have shown me just how much I love the offseason and being able to take a break from the game. The season is a grind, and at 285 games, this was the longest season ever. I’m still not thrilled with the 17th game and the seventh seeds in the playoffs, but they’re never going to shrink from that. It can only expand from here and we just have to get used to fans hyping up their shitty quarterback because he threw for 4,000 yards in a 9-8 season that got him a playoff berth.

Am I going to lose some interest and material if Roethlisberger and Brady are retired for good? Yeah, it’s tough seeing the players who you got to see from the beginning of their careers hang them up. I think we were blessed to have the quarterback stability we saw in the 2000s and 2010s. If Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t return for 2022, then there’s not a quarterback in the league who started a game before the 2008 season. I was doing my final semester of college then. Predicting a Justin Herbert or Lamar Jackson season just isn’t as easy as Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco were for me. We have a lot to still learn about the new blood in this league, and if Donald really does retire for the Rams, could that set off a trend towards much shorter careers as players are making more money and are concerned about CTE and wanting to be able to walk without pain in their thirties?

All I know for sure is that the offseason is so much sweeter when you do not despise the team who just won the Super Bowl.

So, congrats to the Rams, McVay, Stafford, Donald, Kupp, Beckham, Von, and happy retirement for Whitworth and Eric Weddle. You redeemed yourselves from 13-3 in LIII and from 8-68 against winning teams. You saved us from having to see Brady and Tampa Bay in another Super Bowl. And maybe, just maybe, you spared us from white sportswriters pontificating that Burrow is Tom Brady for the Kid Cudi generation.

Until next time.

NFL 2021 NFC Divisional Round Preview

The divisional round on the NFC side brings us two rematches from Week 3, which feels like eons ago. The Rams will attempt to win a third-straight game against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers. Only three teams have handed Brady three straight losses: 2005-06 Broncos (four if you count 2009), 2005-06 Colts, and 2007-11 Giants.

But first, the Packers try to win a playoff game against the 49ers, something that was not a problem in the 90s, proving that is still the best decade ever.

A lot of people are going to predict a rematch of the Bays next week, but wouldn’t that be something if it was 49ers-Rams III? Good luck though. Since 1990, only twice has a conference saw both home teams lose in the divisional round: 2006 AFC (Chargers and Ravens lost to Patriots and Colts) and 2008 NFC (Panthers and Giants lost to Cardinals and Eagles). 2008 was also a weekend where the top-seeded Titans lost to the Ravens, leaving the home teams at 1-3.

Will history repeat itself in a year begging for some upsets and with a top-seeded Titans team people like to disrespect?

You can see my two AFC previews here.

49ers at Packers (-5.5)

Every time these teams play that clip resurfaces of a young Aaron Rodgers at the 2005 draft. When asked how disappointed he was that the 49ers didn’t draft him, he says “not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn’t draft me.”

Rodgers is right that the 49ers likely would have been happier had they drafted him instead of Alex Smith. While there is no guarantee he would go on to be a multi-MVP winner and one of the greatest ever had he started out on Mike Nolan’s team in 2005, I think it’s a given he’d have done a better job than Smith, who was given numerous opportunities to be a franchise quarterback there.

And yet, the fact remains all these years later that Rodgers is 0-3 in the playoffs against San Francisco, and the 49ers have done more to keep him out of Super Bowls than vice versa. The 49ers have even been to one more Super Bowl than Rodgers has so far. They just didn’t get a win because of where a pass Colin Kaepernick threw in the end zone on fourth down landed and because of Patrick Mahomes on third-and-15.

So, this one is pretty personal as buddies Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur meet in their second playoff game after the 49ers routed the Packers in the 2019 NFC Championship Game. But out of the four matchups, this is Rodgers’ best chance to beat the 49ers in the playoffs. If he loses this one at home where the Packers are 8-0 this year, it could even be his last game with the team.

49ers: Why Things Can Be Different This Time

When these teams met in San Francisco on SNF in Week 3, the 49ers did a good job of rallying back from a 17-0 deficit. The defense made just enough stops to prevent the Packers from putting the game away late. Jimmy Garoppolo led a solid 75-yard touchdown drive to take the lead with 37 seconds left. But even that was too much time as Rodgers found Davante Adams twice for 42 yards to set up a game-winning field goal and the Packers won 30-28.

If you want to believe in the 49ers this weekend, you have to like that the team is different than it was in Week 3, especially on offense. Trey Sermon was the leading back that night and he only had 10 carries for 31 yards. Apparently, Shanahan can’t just sub in any back and embarrass the Packers like he did with Raheem Mostert (220 yards, four touchdowns) in the 2019 NFC title game.

Rookie back Elijah Mitchell was out that night. He’s back, and in his last eight games of the season, he averaged 96.8 rushing yards. What did he have in Dallas on Sunday in the playoffs? He had 96 rushing yads and a touchdown. He has been fairly consistent. The 49ers also started using Deebo Samuel more as a runner in Week 10, which kickstarted this 8-2 run after a 3-5 start. While I still think Samuel is too valuable of a receiver to not get him more targets in the passing game, this has been successful for the 49ers. Deebo has rushed for a touchdown in seven of the last nine games and he is ridiculously hard to tackle. The Packers held him to 52 yards on seven touches in Week 3, an impressive effort. But he’s going to be more productive this time.

The question is can the 49ers get tight end George Kittle going again to go along with Mitchell, Samuel, and the sometimes useful Brandon Aiyuk? Kittle had a 39-yard catch that was mostly YAC, his specialty, in Week 3 to help the 49ers get that go-ahead touchdown drive started. It was San Francisco’s only 20-yard play that night.

But Kittle only has 78 yards in his last four games combined. He caught one ball for 18 yards in Dallas and was fortunate to drop a low ball late in the game or else it would have been a brutal fumble. He needs to do more in this matchup.

The 49ers look to be getting good news on the injury front as Garoppolo, Nick Bosa, and Fred Warner are trending towards playing Saturday. There was some concern that rookie Trey Lance would have to start this game, which would likely be disastrous for the 49ers. Remember when Jordan Love had to start against the Chiefs? It’d probably look like a slightly better version of that. The 49ers are going to have to bring the offense this week as Rodgers has led the Packers to at least 20 points in all 20 of his playoff starts, an NFL record.

But I definitely give the 49ers a fighting a chance as that offense has shown the ability to put together very long scoring drives that can shorten the game and shrink Rodgers’ margin of error. The 49ers had a 13:05 drive for a field goal against Jacksonville and a touchdown drive against the Rams that took 11:03 off the clock.

The 49ers are 8-2 in the last 10 games. The Seahawks own them, but the only other loss was on a last-second field goal in Tennessee, the other No. 1 seed this year. Say what you want about Garoppolo and his mistakes, but he led road wins in Cincinnati, Los Angeles (after trailing 17-0), and Dallas last week. That’s two weeks in a row with huge road wins as underdogs, so three in a row would be really hard to do against a rested No. 1 seed.

But the 49ers bring in a good mixture of talent, coaching, balance, and experience to pull off such an upset. It wouldn’t even be a top-four shocking upset in Lambeau this century.

Packers: Same Old Story Or…?

Another year, another likely MVP for Aaron Rodgers, another No. 1 seed, but will it be another playoff exit short of the Super Bowl? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

As much as I personally need the Packers to do well this postseason, I have a hard time buying that this team is better suited for a deep run this season. It especially doesn’t help that I think all three remaining teams (49ers, Rams, Buccaneers) are capable of winning in Green Bay.

The offense regressed from 2020. Rodgers will still win MVP by default, but he was better a year ago. Davante Adams remains incredible, but Marques Valdes-Scantling has been hurt and is doubtful this Saturday. They don’t have a tight end with 250 yards after losing Robert Tonyan. Left tackle David Bakhtiari only returned in Week 18 and played his first 27 snaps in over a year as the offensive line was not as dominant. I do like running back A.J. Dillon, who provides more of a physical style than Aaron Jones, but I don’t see the Packers riding their RB2 to the Super Bowl here.

The defense has actually declined from 14th in yards per drive and 17th in points per drive to 21st in both categories this year. In Weeks 11-14, the Packers allowed 28-34 points in each game, including games against the lowly Bears and the Ravens with a backup QB (Tyler Huntley). Sure, injuries have not been kind to that unit. The Packers lost Za’Darius Smith in Week 1. Corner Jaire Alexander has not played since Week 4. He hopes to return, which could be big, especially if the Packers make it to next week. He intercepted Garoppolo in Week 3.

Spoiler alert: defenses that finish 21st in points per drive tend to do poorly in the playoffs. You basically have to be the 2006 Colts or 2011 Giants to still win a championship. The Packers are also disastrous on special teams, but fortunately, that’s not a strength for the 49ers either. But it is something that could come back to bite Green Bay before this season is over.

But if I’m being optimistic about the Packers this week, then I like what I saw in Week 3. While the 49ers are using their offensive players differently now, they didn’t have any 20-yard plays until Kittle in the final minute. They didn’t run all over Green Bay. Nick Bosa and company got almost no pressure on Rodgers, who had his lowest pressure rate of the season in a game he attacked downfield. Adams got whatever he wanted against that secondary, the weakness of the defense. What are they going to do, guard him with Josh Norman? Allen Lazard has also come along well late in the season as another option for Rodgers, who plays better at home. The 49ers have committed a league-high 20 defensive pass interference penalties, six more than any other defense. Few quarterbacks draw more of those than Rodgers.

When the 49ers swept the Packers in 2019, we saw that domination right away in the first matchup. We didn’t see anything like it this year with the Packers going up 17-0 before a long kick return before halftime got the 49ers back in the game. The Packers have had an issue with putting games away comfortably this year.

The Prediction

The Packers have lost two games this year that Rodgers finished. One was that weird Week 1 game in Jacksonville against the Saints. Bad things just happen when Rodgers goes down to Florida. The other was a 34-31 shootout with the Vikings, a division foe that knows them well. This team has answered every other challenge, including a 4-0 record against the NFC West that has plagued them for a decade.

I do not know if you’ll see me pick the Packers to win another game this season after this week. I do not know if this will end up being the end of the road for Rodgers in Green Bay. But I do know I’m confident enough to pick the Packers to pull out a win on Saturday. I’m just skeptical enough to pick the 49ers to cover.

Final: Packers 27, 49ers 23

Rams at Buccaneers (-3)

The 2021 Rams are trying to be the 2020 Buccaneers but standing in their way is a Tampa team trying to repeat as champions. This is a very intriguing matchup with both teams looking a bit different from their Week 3 showdown, won 34-24 by the Rams. That was a wire-to-wire win, but now that we’re in a pivotal playoff round, you have to worry about some LOAT stuff going down Sunday. Anything is possible if Tom Brady puts his willpower to it.

Rams: To Be the Man…

Fair or not, the Matthew Stafford narrative is about to write its biggest chapter yet. For a team that is going all in on a Super Bowl this season, this would be a major disappointment to lose Sunday even if it is on the road against the defending champions. But the Rams are only a three-point dog and already handed Tampa Bay a 10-point loss this year.

This is the kind of win that could really change the perception for Stafford, who infamously entered this season with an 8-68 (.105) record against teams that finished the season with a winning record. How have things gone so far?

  • Stafford has led the Rams to a 4-5 record against winning teams, including the first winning streak of his career with wins over the Colts and Buccaneers in Weeks 2-3.
  • It is the first season in Stafford’s career where he has logged multiple wins over winning teams.
  • Stafford is still 5-35 (.125) on the road against winning teams (2-2 this year).
  • Stafford is 3-28 (.097) against 12-win teams, but he did get the win over Tampa Bay (13-4) this year.
  • Stafford is 42-52-1 (.447) at 4QC/GWD opportunities in his career, but that record drops to 3-35 (.079) against teams with a winning record.
  • Stafford is still 0-53 when his team allows more than 24 points against a winning team. The Rams are 0-5 when allowing more than 24 points this year and 13-0 otherwise.

That last part feels most significant as the Buccaneers are used to scoring a lot of points. Since 2020, Tampa Bay is 26-0 when scoring at least 28 points, easily the best record in the league and the most such games.

That is why this weekend cannot be all about Stafford as road virtuoso performances by a quarterback are few and far between in NFL playoff history. He needs his defense to step up and there are big names in that group too with Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Jalen Ramsey. Despite those names and the injuries throughout the season to the Tampa Bay secondary, the Bucs still boast a championship-caliber defense, coordinated by Todd Bowles, who showed in the playoffs that he can adjust to specific opponents like he did for the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

The Buccaneers rank No. 6 in points per drive allowed, No. 7 in takeaways per drive, No. 12 in third-down conversion rate, No. 4 in net yards per pass attempt, and allowed the third-fewest rushing yards. That bests the Rams’ defense in each category.

The Rams could catch a break this week with the health of the Tampa Bay offensive line, one of the best units in the league. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen were injured in the wild card game against the Eagles. Wirfs tried to return before leaving for good. Jensen was back almost immediately and finished the game. Neither practiced on Wednesday and Thursday, but there is optimism they’ll be on the field Sunday. Jensen in particular looks like a guy who could have his hand amputated and still want to return to the game. Maybe then Brady would deserve the excessive praise if he played with a center missing a hand. But chances are his studs will be there against a Los Angeles defense that only ranks 25th in pressure rate (via Pro Football Reference), the lowest of any defense in the playoffs this year.

The Eagles had the second-lowest pressure rate among the playoff field, and they are much less aggressive with blitzing, but they still sacked Brady four times and held the Bucs to 4-of-13 on third down. It stands to reason to believe Jensen and Wirfs will not be 100% if they play Sunday. This is why that trio of Donald, Miller (sack in five straight games), and Leonard Floyd must cause havoc in Brady’s face if the Rams are to win this one. Despite their low pressure rate, the Rams had 50 sacks because of how impactful their talent can be when they get to the quarterback. Those guys have to get Brady’s jersey dirty early in this one. He took three sacks on 61 plays in Week 3.

In the secondary, I would shadow Mike Evans with Jalen Ramsey and double Rob Gronkowski on obvious passing downs. This is a different ballgame when Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown are out. It changes to a speed & size matchup with Evans and Gronk having some advantages. But I’d make the other players earn it first. Gio Bernard led the Bucs with nine catches in Week 3. Brady will dink and dunk all day with those throws to the backs, but I’m confident I would not give up more than 24 points if Bernard is the leading receiver again. The Rams cannot let Evans and Gronk beat them.

But things really do come back to Stafford and if he’ll protect the ball well. He threw 13 interceptions in the last nine games of the regular season after having four picks in the first eight games.

Sean McVay’s defense held Brady to 13 points in the Super Bowl a couple years ago, but the offense was of no help that night. The offense has a grand total of 34 points in McVay’s three playoff losses combined. He brought in Stafford to change this history. Last season, the Rams went into Tampa Bay for a Monday night game in Week 11. Jared Goff threw 51 passes for 376 yards while the running game only contributed 19 carries for 37 yards. The Rams still scored 27 points and won by three with the defense forcing Brady into an ugly game. Stafford is 1-3 this year when he throws 40 passes, the only win coming against awful Detroit.

McVay’s plan the last three years against Tampa Bay has been to neglect the run game in favor of the pass. Will he continue that in a road playoff game? Stafford threw just 17 passes on Monday night against Arizona, the first game in his 186-game career where he threw less than 21 passes without leaving injured. That’s some way to win your first playoff game, but it wasn’t necessary to throw more with the way Arizona shit the bed all night.

Stafford is going to have to do more this week and I’m skeptical. If we go back to Week 3, he was outstanding. But Stafford had completions of 75 (TD) and 40 yards to DeSean Jackson, who is no longer with the team. No other play went for more than 22 yards. Cooper Kupp has been incredible all season and in recent games against Tampa Bay. He had two touchdowns in Week 3. The only two games Kupp was under 92 yards all year were the two home games against Arizona. Odell Beckham also looked good on Monday, though he is still averaging career lows across the board with the Rams this season. Cam Akers looked so explosive despite his Achilles injury this summer.

But chances are the Rams are not going to have a good rushing performance this week, and the defense is going to be tested far more than it was against the Cardinals. Stafford is going to have to deliver in the biggest game of his career, and even then, he might need to pull that horseshoe out of Brady’s ass to get the win.

Buccaneers: Everything Is Alright?

For two decades, the best way to beat Tom Brady is to make him play poorly. Take an early lead, force him into mistakes, and put the game out of reach so he can’t come back to win it. Don’t let his team hang around. His statistics in losses have always been well behind those of his lofty peers, because if he is playing well, there’s almost no hope of beating his teams.

This is why I am really concerned about the Rams pulling off another win over this team. In Week 3, Brady dropped back 61 times and did not have a turnover in a game that had zero turnovers from both teams. Brady was 41-of-55 for 432 yards, a touchdown, a rush touchdown, and the Buccaneers only turned it over on downs once. They also missed a 55-yard field goal before halftime, which was set up by a Brady strip-sack by Aaron Donald that the Bucs recovered.

It was not an offensive masterclass, but it was not a total dud like he had in the 9-0 shutout loss to the Saints, or turnover-filled losses against the Saints and Washington this year. It was a 34-24 game where the Rams were just better on offense at home. Brady was also his team’s leading rusher with 14 yards as the Bucs abandoned the run. That is unlikely to happen again this week, especially with Leonard Fournette likely making his return.

This is not the formula to beating Brady, who is 45-4 when he throws for at least 325 yards with zero interceptions. Of course, that Rams game is only the second game in that 49-game sample where his team didn’t score at least 29 points. Brady is also 111-7 (.941) when averaging at least 7.2 yards per attempt and not throwing an interception.

In 2020, the Rams delivered on defense in Tampa Bay the way you want to see. Brady had a season-low 2.8 completed air yards per attempt and 3.2 YAC/completion. He threw a season-high 13 inaccurate throws. The Rams barely pressured him, but it didn’t matter because they covered well, intercepted two passes, including one in crunch time, and they held Brady to 4.5 YPA, his second-worst game with Tampa Bay. That would work this week. But in Week 3, the Rams actually blitzed Brady 13 times, pressured him 11 times (season high and second-highest rate), and he still threw for a first down on 41.4% of his passes (fourth-highest game of season). That’s not going to be winning defense for the Rams this time around.

The Buccaneers are not whole on offense, but if the line is intact, then Gronk and Evans are plenty to get things moving. Gronk had one of his lowest snap counts in Week 3 as that was the game he took a shot in the back, which started his injury problems. He’s been playing at a high level once again. Evans just had a season-high 117 yards against the Eagles.

If the Buccaneers win the turnover battle, they are likely winning this game. In the last two postseasons, Tampa Bay has seven touchdown drives that started in opponent territory. The rest of the NFL has nine in this time. Only the Patriots (11) and Chiefs (seven) have as many playoff touchdown drives on short fields as Tampa Bay since 2014, and the Bucs did not even make the playoffs in 2014-19.

Shawn Hochuli, Ed’s son, is the head referee for this game, which is probably not a good thing for either team or any fan watching the game. His games have had 1,903 penalty yards this season, the third-highest amount in the league. His crew called 28 penalties in Dallas on Thanksgiving, but he may not be that biased towards home teams. He also flagged Tampa Bay 11 times on opening night against Dallas. But chances are this game will trend towards more penalties with him getting his precious screen time, a Hochuli family tradition. At the very least, it’s not Carl Cheffers, who called the most penalties this year and gave Tampa Bay two phantom DPI flags in the second quarter of Super Bowl 55. Then again, Hochuli called 22 DPI flags this year, tied with Cheffers for the second most.

The Prediction

The Rams have a lot of the right elements to deal with Tampa Bay, but I’d sooner go bankrupt than back Stafford to overcome Brady’s luck in a road playoff game. After no turnovers in Week 3, I expect them to be the story of this game. The Rams are 6-1 in close games, the best record in the league, but they did just blow a 17-0 lead to the 49ers in excruciating fashion in Week 18.

I’ve been saying for weeks that Tampa Bay vs. Green Bay is all that matters in the NFC playoffs this year. It’s up to the 49ers and Rams to prove me wrong.

Final: Buccaneers 27, Rams 24

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 18

The NFL can be hard to understand or predict. The NFL can be difficult to love or watch. But days like Sunday, a perfect season finale, are why we keep up with it year after year.

The inaugural 17th regular-season game got off to a dodgy start on Saturday, but Sunday’s slate delivered the most drama of any Sunday this season. As always, the NFL won out in the end. Sure, it helped that each time slot had a very meaningful game go to overtime. The Colts, a 15-point favorite in Jacksonville, also helped by laying an instant egg that set up the rest of the day for great drama.

Ben Roethlisberger didn’t need to say a prayer Sunday to extend his career. He just needed to believe that Carson Wentz and the Chargers are who we thought they were.

They indeed are. Now, two better statistical teams (Colts and Chargers) are staying home while two teams with below minus-50 scoring differentials (Steelers and Raiders) are in the tournament. I really did not expect that from Sunday.

Season Predictions: Not to Toot My Own Horn But…

I’ll get to every game below, but I do want to start by saying that I’m really proud of my preseason predictions this season. I don’t like to toot my own horn this way, but in dark times like these, it feels good to see some hard work pay off. This was the first season where I wrote a detailed season preview of all 32 teams. I’m not sure if that was the reason I had my most accurate predictions yet or not, or if it was because of how competitive this season was with 25 teams getting at least seven wins.

Not only did I predict 11 of the 14 playoff teams correctly, but I was only off by an average of 1.3 wins for all 32 teams’ final record. That is by far my best job yet as I’m usually off by about 2.5 wins. My previous best was 2.06 wins in 2014. I predicted 24 teams to within one game of their record in 2021 after only getting eight in 2020 and an average of 12 teams from 2013-20. I was within two games of 28 teams after an average of 18.6 from 2013-20.

My weekly predictions also ended on a decent note. As I explained on Saturday, I thought I was doing terrible because of my record on the game previews I’ve been assigned, but my overall record for the season is fine. It happened again this week as my articles were 1-3 ATS but I still finished 10-6 ATS for Week 18.

That leaves my final records for the 2021 season at 158-113-1 ATS (.583) and 174-97-1 SU (.642).

For a season thought to be so historically wild and competitive, I’ll take these numbers any day. Hopefully I can improve on them next year.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Colts at Jaguars: WTF, Frank?

Sunday in the NFL goes much differently if the Colts, a 15-point favorite, did not choke so badly in Jacksonville. They fell victim to a season-high 26 points and career-best game from Trevor Lawrence, who massively outplayed Carson Wentz with the Colts’ season on the line. Jonathan Taylor only rushed for 77 yards and did not find the end zone, likely missing out on every award now this year. The Colts have gone from the team “no one wants to face” to the team watching the playoffs from home despite a plus-86 scoring differential.

You probably already know my thoughts about Wentz, and how this game validates the type of fool’s gold he is and how he’ll never lead the Colts to anywhere significant.

But I’m more concerned about head coach Frank Reich after this one. You can’t be considered a top-tier head coach if you can’t figure out how to beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville. This stat is flat out embarrassing and it doesn’t even go back to 2018 where he lost 6-0 down there with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. The Colts haven’t won in Jacksonville since 2014.

How do you not get your team fired up to win as a 15-point favorite with the playoffs on the line? How is the “run the damn ball” offensive line not hyped to get Jonathan Taylor a 2,000-yard rushing season if need be? The Colts came out flat and they paid for it as they finish 2021 without a single 4QC/GWD. It was the finest wire-to-wire win for Jacksonville since beating the Patriots in the second game of the 2018 season.

When Lawrence converted a pair of third-and-10+ on the first drive, you thought this could be interesting. A game-opening touchdown that took up half the quarter was not expected. Taylor getting stuffed on a 4th-and-2 on the ensuing drive was not expected. Lawrence completing 19-of-25 for 208 yards at halftime and a 13-3 lead was certainly not expected after the brutal rookie year he’s had.

Now in the third quarter when Wentz is expected to make things happen, that’s when you get nervous as a Colts fan. He did nothing to alleviate those concerns. Wentz coughed up a strip-sack on the fourth play of the half, which the Jaguars fortunately only turned into a field goal despite amazing field position. Then came the bad interception, and that one was not so fortunate to avoid turning into seven points.

Down 23-3, the damage was already done by the coddled caretaker at quarterback. To Wentz’s credit, he was not the problem after it got out of hand at 23-3. Taylor was stuffed on a 4th-and-goal at the 1, a money moment for him the rest of the season, but not on Sunday. Wentz later threw a good enough deep ball on a 4th-and-12, but Parris Campbell failed to make a play on it in a situation where he absolutely needed to. The Colts got eight points on their next drive to make it 26-11 with 4:26 left, but out of timeouts, the defense failed to get the ball back.

Imagine beating the Bills, Patriots, and Cardinals before losing to the Raiders and Jaguars to miss the playoffs. What a way to give up a first-round pick to the playoff-bound Eagles, who certainly don’t miss Wentz’s bullshit.

The Colts had two decades to build great teams around Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, which they rarely ever did. Now after building up the offensive line, finding a great back, a supposedly great coach, and getting a ton of turnovers on defense, none of it is going to matter because now they don’t have a real franchise quarterback.

Unless the Jaguars make the most AFC South move of all time and hire Bill O’Brien, I’d sooner bet on Jacksonville doing something in the playoffs before the Colts as long as Wentz is the quarterback.

Steelers at Ravens: It’s Not Over Yet

I was not emotionally prepared to watch Ben Roethlisberger’s final game. He’s really the first Hall of Fame athlete I can say I experienced the whole career of from the first preseason game to the final snap. As it turns out, his final snap will have to wait at least a week.

The early control of the Colts by Jacksonville added some major intrigue to this game, even if it didn’t seem like either team had a clue what was going on in Florida in the first half. This was your typical Steelers-Ravens game, which means one team was missing its starting quarterback (Lamar Jackson) and it was an ugly, physical street fight.

Frankly, the Ravens should have ran more than the 36 carries for 249 yards got them. A good chunk (72 yards) of that was quarterback Tyler Huntley scrambling, but it felt like a relief when the Ravens called a pass play and he didn’t scramble. The Steelers were getting gashed again by the run as they have all year. Latavius Murray had 150 yards himself. But the defense came up with some crucial stops in the second half, including an interception in the end zone when Baltimore was up 10-6 and looking for more. That really changed the game, as did a forced fumble by T.J. Watt on a play where he thought he tied the sack record but it wasn’t actually a sack. He later tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record.

The game was also a great example of why watching Roethlisberger is so conflicting these days. On the one hand, you can see why he needs to retire as his body seems to be running on fumes down the stretch. After hitting a good stride for eight games, he’s struggled since the Minnesota loss. Roethlisberger became the first quarterback since 2008 Kyle Orton to throw for fewer than 160 yards in three straight games on at least 25 attempts.

This was looking like a fourth straight game of that, which would tie the NFL record, but then Roethlisberger showed us why he’s one of the all-time leaders in clutch wins. Pittsburgh kept trying to run its backup running back – Najee Harris was injured on the third snap and missed a large chunk of the game – against one of the worst pass defenses in the league. It led to the backs gaining 35 yards on their first 23 carries, constantly putting Roethlisberger on a wet field in bad down-and-distance situations.

But finally, the Steelers let Ben take over in what could have easily been his final game. In the last six minutes of regulation and overtime, he converted all five of his passes on third or fourth down with at least six yards to go. The 20-yard pass on third-and-9 to Ray Ray McCloud is vintage Roethlisberger, as was the fourth down conversion in overtime with pressure applied.

Three of those conversions in overtime alone led to Roethlisberger’s seventh game-winning drive of the season. Harris finally broke a 15-yard run as the 24th carry of the game for the backs was a success to set up Chris Boswell for the 36-yard game-winning field goal. He got it, and the Steelers (9-7-1) just needed the Raiders and Chargers to not tie at night.

That was a hell of a lot harder than it needed to be, but the Steelers made this season so difficult. The Detroit tie that saved them in the end almost cost them too as that should have been a 10th win that wouldn’t have made a tie feasible for the Raiders and Chargers. But neither the Detroit tie after Ben got COVID nor the lousy run defense could keep the Steelers out of this postseason as the seventh seed. Their reward is a trip to Kansas City where they lost 36-10 two weeks ago, but you’d still rather be playing than done for good.

Just don’t lose 62-7 like Dan Marino’s final game in Jacksonville and I’ll call it a success.

Chargers at Raiders: And That’s BINGO

I thought the Chargers already played in the Game of the Year against the Chiefs in Week 15, an overtime classic. This one too should go down as an instant overtime classic, and go figure, the Chargers came up short again despite an incredible performance from Justin Herbert. So many plays in this game were inches away from going the other way.

The Chargers were 6-of-7 on fourth down, only failing on an ill-advised run in the third quarter deep in their own end. Almost all these other decisions were out of necessity as Herbert converted the last five fourth downs where failure on any one of them would have ended the Chargers’ season right there.

While Herbert won’t be going to the playoffs in his second season, my respect for him shot up with this game. He outplayed Derek Carr, who got a more competent team performance on the night. The Chargers fumbled a punt return that led to a 23-yard touchdown drive and early 10-0 hole. Jalen Richard ran for a first down on a 3rd-and-23 before halftime on a drive that also included a 41-yard penalty for pass interference despite Carr’s pass landing nowhere near any receiver.

The Chargers missed a game-tying 51-yard field goal to start the third quarter while the Raiders hit a 52-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to take a 29-14 lead. It was just that kind of night for the Chargers, but that’s also where the fun really started with the fourth downs. Herbert threw a touchdown on a 4th-and-21 and converted a two-point conversion with 4:28 left. A failure there would also have made the end of the game fairly moot. But in getting the ball back, Herbert embarked on a 19-play marathon drive that felt like a whole quarter itself despite taking only 2:06 off the game clock. Herbert found Mike Williams for a 12-yard touchdown as time expired.

I’m not surprised Brandon Staley settled for the extra point there. It was common sense as a tie did put both teams in the playoffs. I didn’t agree with a lot of his decisions in this game, but that one was agreeable. After the teams exchanged field goals in overtime, it sure looked like Pittsburgh was going to get screwed with a tie, but Carr and the Raiders were still hungry for a win. Maybe avoiding the Chiefs next week was on their mind given the way those two matchups went this year. Plus, the added bonus of eliminating a division rival is hard to pass up.

Carr made a great throw to Zay Jones on a third-and-8 to avoid the tie from happening. It still may have happened if the Raiders kept running with a lazy approach to the final minute, but Staley called timeout with 38 seconds left before a third-and-4. That seemed to change the Raiders’ approach and they broke off a 10-yard run against a terrible run defense.

With two seconds left, there was still a little risk associated with kicking a field goal. If you get blocked for a touchdown there and miss the playoffs, you’ll be an all-time laughingstock in NFL history. I normally don’t care about the block, but this situation (tie equals playoffs) was so unique. But the Raiders executed, and Daniel Carlson made a great 47-yard field goal to win the game at the buzzer.

Carr’s 30th game-winning drive is the third most in a quarterback’s first eight seasons behind only Russell Wilson (32) and Matt Ryan (31).

I don’t want to get bogged down with Staley’s decision making after a classic game where his team came up short. The Chargers followed a 4-1 start with a 1-3 slump and will end with a 1-3 slump to miss the playoffs. I’d just like to see the team do a better job of building up the defense so Herbert isn’t trying to win 35-32 games so much.

But knowing my NFL history, this game will somehow be the first chapter in the “Herbert isn’t clutch” narrative despite him rescuing this game time and time again to even give it a chance to be an all-time tie.

But they even screwed that up too. I would have loved to see Williams take that fourth-down catch in overtime all the way for a winning touchdown, but I’ll take the outcome as is.

I never had to root harder for a non-tie.

49ers at Rams: The McVay Halftime Stat Is Dead

I was torn on this one. Do I root for Kyle Shanahan to underperform and miss the playoffs to let the Saints in, or do I look to add another loss to Matthew Stafford’s record against teams with a winning record? I guess since my best parlays went in LA’s favor this week, karma took care of the rest with one of the most stunning losses of the Sean McVay era.

Talk about backing into a division title. The Rams seemed to be exorcising their San Francisco demons when they led 17-0 and Stafford couldn’t miss a throw. But then the pressure did come for him. The 49ers trailed 17-3 at halftime, and McVay was infamously 45-0 in his career when leading at halftime. I always hated hearing this stat referenced since it implies that he’s never lost a game when leading in the second half. He has. Multiple times.

The 49ers did not need much time to erase that deficit thanks to the multiple talents of Deebo Samuel, who ran for a score, threw a touchdown, and is a beast after the catch. But it still looked like the Rams were going to send the 49ers home and the Saints, who were winning in Atlanta, into the playoffs. Jimmy Garoppolo saw a tipped ball get picked in the end zone by Jalen Ramsey in a tied game in the fourth quarter. Cooper Kupp absolutely should have locked up the Offensive Player of the Year award with an incredible drive that saw him go over 90 yards for a record-extending 13th straight game, and he caught the go-ahead touchdown with 2:29 left.

Von Miller notched a third-down sack to set up 4th-and-18 at the San Francisco 17 as the two-minute warning hit. Almost surprisingly, Shanahan punted with his three timeouts left. It’s no man’s land, for sure, but I have to say I agree with the punt. The conversion is so low percentage, and if you don’t get it, the game is basically over as you’ll be down two scores at best when you get the ball back. If you punt and force a three-and-out, you have a chance with plenty of time to get the tying touchdown. I really find it hard to believe the 49ers were at 0.4% in win probability there.

Basically, it’s a punt call I think almost every coach would do, but Brandon Staley and John Harbaugh may go for it and lose the game right there. The 49ers got it to work largely because of a cowardly decision by McVay to run Sony Michel three times and punt. I can understand a second-down run, even if that would have been the perfect time to throw deep to Kupp, who was still in position to get to 2,000 receiving yards on the season. But after trading for Stafford and having Kupp chasing history, you run Sony Michel on third-and-7 for 2 yards? Pathetic.

But Garoppolo got the job done with his receiver showing their incredible YAC again. Samuel had a 43-yard play and that set up a 15-yard touchdown to Jennings with 26 seconds left. The 49ers settled for a field goal in overtime, but the defense just had to stop Stafford one more time. He threw up a pick on first down when he had plenty of time to be more methodical in a 27-24 game. Game over. Fortunately, the Cardinals lost to Seattle, so the Rams still win the division.

But if the Rams go one-and-done after losing this game, the bugaboo for Stafford against good competition is only going to grow. After going 8-68 against winning teams coming into 2021, Stafford finishes the regular season with a 3-5 record against winning teams. Still a career year and the first time he notched multiple wins in the same season. But with the expectations pointing towards Super Bowl or bust with the moves this team has made, a 3-6 finish against winning teams (assuming a loss to Arizona next week) would be a massive disappointment.

Maybe even McVay, Mr. 3 Points in the Super Bowl, will feel the criticism this time as well. He no longer has Goff as the scapegoat. The Rams had no business losing this game and still did. On the bright side, we never have to hear again how he’s undefeated when leading at halftime.

Saints at Falcons: Tough Year

I feel bad for Jameis Winston tearing his ACL in Week 8. Would the Saints still have swept the Buccaneers if he was QB1 in those games for all eight quarters? That’s not certain. The Saints were also taking a very conservative approach with him all season long, but I think they still had real potential for 10-plus wins if he stayed healthy. The Ian Book game was also certainly a debacle as New Orleans’ only loss in the last five games.

Get Winston healthy and add some receivers, and maybe the Saints can challenge for the division again next season. As for the Falcons, congrats on setting the worst scoring differential record for a seven-win team in NFL history one year after setting the best scoring differential record for a four-win team in NFL history. That at least shows the better coaching this year, or maybe just the better luck in close games as the Falcons didn’t shit their pants at the end against the Giants, Jets, Dolphins, Lions, and Saints (first time).

Seahawks at Cardinals: Bring the Band Back?

I was pretty high on the Seattle upset this week as I don’t believe in Arizona and felt that the Russell Wilson-Pete Carroll era needed to end on a high note. After the 38-30 win where Wilson played well with his receivers and Rashaad Penny again had a huge rushing performance, I’m starting to think the Seahawks will bring the band back for 2022. It’s not over. They’ll cite Wilson’s injury and some bad luck in close games as they were 0-7 at game-winning drive opportunities before getting one in this game due to a short field.

And maybe that’s not the worst idea in the world. When you see teams wanting to interview Bill O’Brien and Dan Quinn as their head coach, is there an obvious upgrade to Pete out there? And there is validity in thinking this offense could work if those key skill players stay healthy.

Seattle just scored 38 points in consecutive games for the first time since the 2015 season. As for Arizona, it was a big missed opportunity with the Rams losing to the 49ers but still winning the NFC West. Arizona will settle for the No. 5 seed despite starting 7-0. The Cardinals are just 3-5 at home. However, maybe starting the playoffs on the road isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Jets at Bills: AFC East Supremacy

You wouldn’t know it, but the Bills technically won their first “close game” of the 2021 season. The Jets were only down 13-10 and had the ball to start the fourth quarter. Of course, they were backed up in their own end and couldn’t do anything about it. Buffalo scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives that started at midfield to take a 27-10 lead while the Jets couldn’t get another first down. So, it goes down as an easy 17-point cover, but it was another tough game for three quarters in the wind for the Bills.

I would have loved to see rematches of Bills-Titans and Bengals-Chiefs in the divisional round, but it’s more likely going to be a Bills-Chiefs rematch in that round now. That’s assuming the Bills, now back-to-back winners of the AFC East, can knock off the Patriots again this week.

Patriots at Dolphins: Miami Does It Again

Robert Kraft has to stop taking the Patriots to those special massage parlors when they visit Miami each season. That’s about the only explanation I have for why this team underperforms so badly down there.

Well, scratch that. Some combination of former Belichick assistants (Nick Saban, Tony Sparano was a Bill Parcells guy at least, and Brian Flores), Tom Brady shitting his pants, the heat, and some general randomness (2018 Miami Miracle) likely have contributed too. But the Dolphins have won three in a row against the Patriots now.

Once a contender for the No. 1 seed, the Patriots have really stumbled down the stretch, finishing 1-3 out of the bye. This team might be the Eagles of the AFC this year. Prompted up by the schedule and trying to win with defense and running the ball. However, unlike the Eagles, the Patriots have a quality win over a playoff team this year. They beat the Bills in Buffalo in that windy game where they only threw three passes. I think the Bills are clearly the better team in fair weather, so we’ll see if Belichick can sell someone else’s soul to conjure up some hellish wind on Saturday when these teams meet for the third time in six weeks.

Panthers at Buccaneers: Of Course They Get Philly

The Panthers hung in there for a half with Tampa Bay, but too much Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans were enough for Carolina. Throw in a loss by the Rams and the Patriots Buccaneers move up to the No. 2 seed, because what else would you expect? Of course Tom Brady is going to start a playoff run with a Philadelphia team that is 0-6 against playoff teams and built to run the ball while Tampa Bay is an elite run defense that needs to be passed on to have success.

Throw in a potential Dallas matchup in the second round, and it’s looking like winning a couple of NFC East rematches is all it will take to get back to the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. Or hosting it in Tampa should the Packers falter out of the bye.

It’s LOAT season again. Hold on to your butts, or hope for a couple new Philly Specials.

Titans at Texans: Her?

The Titans are the No. 1 seed as adding “swept by Texans and lost to Jets” to the resume along with “wins over the Chiefs, Bills, Rams, 49ers” was too crazy to be true. They still survived a scare from Davis Mills, who threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns as the Texans put up a fight after trailing 21-0.

We’ll see if the return of Derrick Henry in the playoffs is a catalyst to push this team to a Super Bowl, or if they’ll compete with the 2000 Titans and 2008 Titans for the title of weakest No. 1 seed in the expanded playoff era.

Do you need a reminder that both of those teams lost at home in the divisional round?

Chiefs at Broncos: Melvin on Melvin Violence

Quickly going back to Saturday, the Chiefs were in another dogfight with the Broncos before Melvin Ingram blew up Melvin Gordon in the red zone for a fumble that was returned 86 yards for a game-winning touchdown. It’s just the second non-offensive game-winning score of the season following New England’s pick-six against the Chargers.

Like I said last week, the Chiefs probably cannot continue to reliably score if Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are both going to be limited in production. Hill had an injury that limited him to 2 yards in this one and Kelce only had 34 yards again and was shaken up on his last catch. Hopefully they’ll both be alright as the Chiefs prepare to play the first wild card game of the Patrick Mahomes era.

As for the Broncos, blow it all up, I say. New coach and new direction at quarterback.

Cowboys at Eagles: Artificial Fight

Dak Prescott’s first game with five touchdown passes came against a very backup-heavy Eagles team on Saturday night. I think Dallas still wins with both teams at full strength, but this isn’t far off from the meaningless season finales these teams also played against each other in 2016 and 2017. Still, it drops the Eagles to 1-7 vs. teams with a winning record, and that one win (Saints) only became official on Sunday with New Orleans getting that ninth win. That means the Eagles are 0-6 against playoff teams this year.

I’ll have plenty more to say about both in the playoff previews this week.

Bears at Vikings: End of Two Eras?

By the time you read this, Matt Nagy and Mike Zimmer could both be fired from their jobs. It’s definitely time for Nagy to go and to get someone in there to coach up Justin Fields so he doesn’t make mistakes like Andy Dalton did on Sunday. But Zimmer has likely run his course too after getting to one NFC Championship Game in eight seasons and just one postseason in four tries with Kirk Cousins as his quarterback.

The Vikings (8-9) have some amazing offensive talent to only finish ninth in the NFC. It could be a much different outcome for Zimmer and Cousins without a missed field goal in Arizona or a last-second touchdown allowed in Detroit. But too many of those games go the other way for this Minnesota team year after year.

Bengals at Browns: Ohio Rests

Not much you can say about a game where both starting quarterbacks were out and the Bengals rested plenty of other key guys for the playoffs. Good on the Bengals for the backdoor cover. Now let’s see if Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase can lead them to their finest season since the 1988 Super Bowl team with a playoff win.

Packers at Lions: Some Kneecaps Were Eaten

I liked that the Packers got Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams some good reps in this one. Stay sharp for the playoffs and don’t fall into the trap of the double rest weeks with the bye coming. Jordan Love also got some important playing time and had some mixed results. Good on Jared Goff to lead a game-winning drive and end his season on a high note for Dan Campbell’s bunch. Definitely more competitive than the 3-13-1 record will suggest.

Sunday was the first time the Jaguars and Lions won games in the same week since October 27, 2019 (Week 8). They were playing the Jets and Giants that day, of course.

Washington at Giants: War Crime

While the Giants actually had two gains of 20-plus yards this week despite the 22-7 loss, this game was still an atrocity on an otherwise stellar Sunday.

This was the first NFL game since the 2017 Colts-Bills snow game where neither team had 100 net passing yards. You have to go back to the historically bad 2010 Panthers-Bears game to find the last time it happened in a non-snow game.

At the very least, it helped me nail my predictions of 7-10 Football Team (adios to that name) and 4-13 Giants. Now will 2022 please make these teams more watchable? You know the next time they play we’ll probably have to see it on an island.

This week: Busy one coming up. I’ll have the close game summary report for 2021, my season award picks, and full previews for all six wild card games.